The Dangers of River Dams


Two decades after President George H.W. Bush signed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, construction to dismantle the hydroelectric dams on the Elwha River in Washington state is finally underway. The restoration project, the largest ever attempted, forces communities in Washington formerly served by hydroelectric dams to find alternative energy sources. Despite the project’s large price tag of $350 million and the fact that by removing the dams, Washingtonians lose a valuable source of renewable energy, the decision to remove the dams is sound; dams threaten the ecology, human health, and ultimately our communities.

Dams are well known for the various types of damage they inflict on the environment. American Rivers, a conservation group dedicated to the health of American rivers, describes the many ways in which dams inadvertently kill fish and diminish water supplies meant for major metropolitan centers — notably Los Angeles and Phoenix.

A larger issue is that studies have shown dams to be a significant catalyst for earthquakes, especially if they are located in an area with significant geological activity. In fact, some experts have linked the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China, which claimed 69,000 lives, to a dam on a tributary of the Yangtze River that happened to be situated near a major fault line. While no two geological sites are exactly the same, there are dams in the U.S. constructed on areas of significant seismic activities. 

For instance, the Lake Isabella Dam was built in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on an active fault line; the dam is also adjacent to a city. Not only is the dam built on land already predisposed toward earthquakes, but the dam also has the ability to exacerbate these qualities and instigate an earthquake when there normally might not have been one.

Not only are dams inherently dangerous, but many have also fallen into disrepair over the years. The Lake Isabella Dam was listed as one of the most structurally distressed dams in the nation. The dam, which was built approximately half a century ago, is an earthenware dam and has begun to severely leak water. While many dams built more recently have structural additions, like drains, to help with this issue, the Lake Isabella Dam does not. To fix this problem, the government must spend a significant amount of money it does not currently have. 

Not only are dams a risk to human lives, but at a time when politicians are loathe to compromise on how to raise revenue, dams have become another burden for our already crippled system to carry.

Though dams are a rather mundane subject, they have become a crucial element to modern life. As dams have become dangers to our health and ecosystems, we must remedy existing problems and anticipate future ones. 

Photo Credit: mbtrama